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The fiction writing advice most people are too tactful to give you

If you always dreamed of writing fiction, okay. Great, I like fiction.

Then do not do some things, and do other things. I feel like going with the don’ts first.

Please, DO NOT:

–Keep tweaking it forever. At some point, your book needs to be done. It’s done when it’s ready for copy editing, then proofreading, then typesetting, then publication. If you get back the edited and proofread ms, and then go back to work on it, you undid its doneness. Tweak it for decades if you wish, but just don’t ever call it done until you can think of nothing more to do yourself that will improve it.

–Show people your work as you write it. “Because I just want to see if I’m on the right track.” No, you should not. I believe that you should create, and keep it to yourself, and start showing it around when you’re done. I believe that serializing the chapters to your friends will wear them down, whereupon they will eye-glaze and begin to avoid you.

–Worry too much about your grammar and punctuation problems as you create. Just know that you have them, that a competent editor will address them and teach you what you did wrong, and that you’ll improve. They are the least of your worries, because a great story told awkwardly can be fixed, while an insipid story told eloquently is just well-written insipidity.

–Mistake your self-editing for what a professional editor would do, because it is not. Of course you will modify, edit, change, fix, rip out, add to your own work. Excellent; improve it all you can. But understand that it’s different than what I, or someone like me, will do.

–Ask people like me for advice, then ignore it. The reason I’ve come to dislike the phrase “I want to pick your brain” is not because I’m unwilling to help. It’s because, quite often, the person asking plans to heed only those reactions that confirm his or her pre-existing notions and plans. You could get that from your personal cheerleaders. Pretty much all writers have them, and they serve valuable purposes, one of which is to tell you that all your ideas and plans and adverbs are excellent.

Seriously. Have a heart. If you are just looking for confirmation, and will ignore anything else, why go to an objective source? Just ask your personal cheerleaders, like your mom and your spouse and so on, who are guaranteed to endorse everything you need them to. “But that won’t mean anything!” Of course it won’t. But if it’s really all you seek, go where you will find it, without self-deception.

–Get needy. A needy author is irritating to those close to him or her. A needy author needs praise. He or she asks for critique and claims to want honesty, but deep down, wants only honest praise. People run like hell from needy authors, so this is bad for you. It’s one thing for me; I get paid to deal with writers’ emotions, at least to some degree, including neediness. (I mostly ignore it.) People who do not get paid to put up with neediness should not have to: friends, co-workers, family, corporations.

–Use your personal cheerleaders as your ‘first readers.’ Anyone who would never say to you “I’m sorry, I can’t even get through this; it’s terrible” is not objective enough to be classified as a first reader. Sure, your first readers mainly like your work, but if they’d never criticize a thing you did, they are no help to you, because their praise means nothing. My wife can be a first reader for me, because she is willing to say things like: “This makes no damn sense at all.” “I don’t get it. How was this Höss guy different from Hess?” She’s not a personal cheerleader. She likes my good writing, and doesn’t like my bad writing. She is the one who will intercept my worst tendencies.

–Use the term ‘beta readers.’ Beta is a term that applies to programming and electronics. To apply it to literature is to fart in church (or in a dignified museum of natural history, if you revere that instead). They are early readers, or first readers.

–Start out with something semi-autobiographical, a common shortcut. I see a great deal of this; it may account for over half the first-time fiction I see. It poses a number of problems:

  • We all think our lives have been very interesting. In reality, your life is mostly interesting and exciting to you and your mother. That’s one sale. You will need rather more. Okay, your spouse. Still only one sale, since  your spouse gets to read it on your computer.
  • Your editor will view your work as fiction, but you may reject worthwhile changes because your knowledge of the real persons will conflict. “No. I–I mean, he–would never say that.” The first time your editor refers to your protag as if he were just another character, it will likely impact you. And when your editor points out that what you have the main character doing is idiotic, you may take it personally.
  • You could find that you are too sensitive and defensive about the content, especially if the semi-autobiography covers traumatic events in your life. You may give them words that don’t make a good story. “But I have a right to say that! Those are my feelings! She hurt me bad! That’s why I wrote this! Damn it, I get the final say and I say it stays!” You’re too close to it. Negative reviews might sting you more than they should. You may tend to take any form of rejection too personally–as a rejection/invalidation of your personal story, rather than a fictional tale. That’s tough, because rejection is going to be part of the experience, and reviewers just don’t give a shit.
  • It isn’t as creative as original fiction. When you write semi-autobiographical fiction, you still haven’t really conceived a story. You’ve only lifted a real one and spiced it up. What if it succeeds, and you then have to come up with something new? You will not have proven to your own satisfaction that you can.

–Let that discourage you from incorporating aspects of life you know. It’s okay to write about a fictional molested child and draw upon your own experience of molestation, for example. Just give yourself some distance from the child: gender, background, personality, whatever, so that if someone criticizes the character, it’s not an invalidation of your personal experience. It’s fine to write your autobiography, even, though this is advice on fiction writing, thus only selectively germane.

–Accept Oxford’s lamentable ruling that ‘literally’ can now mean ‘very.’ No. No. No. We needed that word, one that helped us separate exaggeration from reality, and Oxford has surrendered to barbarism. In my eyes, the institution has forfeited its moral authority over the English language, used its prestige for evil. I need to retrain myself to refer to ‘the comma formerly known as Oxford.’

 

However, please DO:

–Read Stephen King’s On Writing. I am a non-fan of King’s fiction. In fact, I can’t get through a page and a half of it. Doesn’t matter. His level of success dictates that anything he has to say about the craft of fiction deserves attention and consideration. If you’re writing fiction and have not read this, now’s the time. If you read the whole thing, sniff “Sorry, that’s just not my creative process,” and disregard it all, never ask me for free advice on writing again, because I tried and you blew me off, which means my guidance can not benefit you.

–Answer this self-honestly: is it a vanity book or a commercial book? Unless you’re willing to develop a getting-published plan beyond ‘luck out with agents and New York,’ and a marketing plan beyond ‘wait for my genius to be discovered,’ it’s a vanity book. Just accept that and give yourself permission for it, if it’s the truth. Of course marketing is icky. So is diapering. Just think of marketing your work as changing your baby’s diapers, and that if you refuse to market your work, you leave it laying there in a soiled condition. Also, the soiling won’t stop just because you decide not to market it. It’ll just get deeper until you change the diaper or stop feeding the baby.

–Check out a writers’ group or two. It’s a great way to learn how not to handle yourself (that is not a typo), and you might even find one that you like.

Invest time and energy in grasping how the opposite sex tends to think, feel, and approach life. There are those who insist that gender identity is an artificial construct, a set of chains supplied by a small-minded society. While they might be right, in the meantime, you have readers who are of both genders, are comfortable with that identity, and know when characters don’t ring true.

I do not think this is more difficult for either gender, because it is my opinion that most people don’t exert an honest, compassionate effort to understand how and why the other side thinks. They may just fall back on stereotypes, comfortable perceptions with bases in reality but which cannot safely be assumed. If you’re a man, your female characters will not be credible until you learn to see the world through feminine eyes. If you’re a woman, you’ll have the same issue with male characters until you remedy it. There is no expectation that you change your own world view, but you will create and storytell better characters when you can extend yourself far enough to perceive opposite-sex actions as reasonable and rational given the acting character’s perspective.

–Read some writers’ message boards. They’ll show you all the self-assured, egotistical, bon mot-dropping pretension I hope you’ll choose to avoid. You might even meet some down-to-earth fellow travelers who are more interested in writing than in showing off wit, or talking about how cool it would be to write.

–Decide whether your approach will be plotted or situational, and go with it. In general, fiction is either planned out (Dean Koontz, I am convinced, uses a bracketing system like the Final Four) or flows like a good D&D game, with the story unfolding based upon how the characters would behave (King’s method). Either can work well, so it’s a matter of what best flows your creative process while avoiding the tar pit of contrivance.

–Write something daily. If your day sucked and you cannot bear to write, just do one sentence that introduces a misfortune for a character, then call it a day. Break her nail. Spill his coffee. Have him almost throw up while brushing his teeth, like I do each and every morning. Take it out on your imaginary people. If you cannot even manage that, write “Today sucked and I cannot bear to write.” Tomorrow, you can delete it and write something more pertinent. Thus, there is no excuse for not writing at least one sentence. Today, one day after drafting this, I had a day of infuriated non-writing frustration. I nearly went to this very spot and took my own advice. 90% of the time, when I sit down to do that, I come up with something more worthwhile.

–Your research. If you are putting fiction into a historical backdrop–what we might call Michenering–great, but research it well enough to give your milieu the ring of reality. Going to tell the story of a Roman legionary in Caesar’s army as it invested Vercingetorix at Alesia? (Someone do it. I want to read that.) Know the full story of the campaign and battle, the various Gallic tribes opposing Caesar, how legions were organized, how they camped, how legionaries were equipped, what sorts of men actually comprised Roman legions of the period, and how battle unfolded in the era. If you know all this, you will get the details right, and your writing will feel informed and authentic. (And I will buy that book.) “No way! I don’t want to read about all that! I just wanted to write about some Romans!” Then don’t. Not if you aren’t willing to do a little work. Go back and write what you do know.

–Be cheerful, unless your entire personality and motif involve Poeish, dystopian gloom. Laugh at yourself a little without cruel mockery. You ripped out a part that introduced a character, then realized later that you did this, orphaning later references? Laugh at how that would have looked to the reader, fix it, and move on. You wrote something that could have been a Damnyouautocorrect moment? Let yourself laugh. Take the process seriously, but not without light moments. It’s writing a story, not planning a lethal injection or having an intervention for a meth addict. Work out your humor muscles. “A mandrill of below average literacy would reject that sentence.” “That joke would silence a pack of hyenas.” “If I publish that paragraph, a reviewer will think I wrote the ms in old crayolas.” “Archaic construction much? I can see the review now: ‘Must surely have read better in the original Sumerian cuneiform.'”

–Overcome bad habits. Too many adverbs, too many ellipses, too many em dashes, too many italic emphases, too many exclamation points, too much tell and not enough show, all the new writer addictions. This is a work in progress, so get started. If all those are your style, then your style has room for improvement. Doing it wrong doesn’t make you a gutsy avant-garde rebel; it makes readers put down your book.

–Read the infamous Village Voice blog entry by Josh Olson titled ‘I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script.’ This is a concentrated summary of what first-time writers need to understand goes on in many literary professionals’ minds. It will help you understand why your author friend doesn’t want to read your ms. She can’t win; from the moment you bring it up, all her choices are unpleasant, and further infuriating her, she knows that she will come off as the ogre in a situation she did not instigate. It’s somewhat different than asking your friend the plumber to come over and look at your toilet tank on the weekend, because you aren’t asking the plumber to evaluate your months of work and perhaps tell you it’s a mess. Also, you will probably make the plumber lasagna or cookies or something, whereas you won’t do that (or anything else nice) for the literary professional. And if she does it and gives you helpful feedback, she opens herself to the possibility that you might rewrite it and expect her to look at it again. And again. It’s not as bad as asking her to read your child’s work and critique it–the ultimate lose/lose–but it’s close.

In case you were wondering, no, that article is not a neat summary of what goes on in my mind every time I’m asked. For one thing, I don’t read or edit screenplays. For another, I’m nicer (and it works to my detriment). But have I ever, at one time or another, had most of the thoughts he describes? Yeah. Honestly, I have. I think the worst time was when I went to interview to volunteer at my local library, and the guy made clear early on that the library had no use for me unless I wanted to baby-sit. But it wasn’t pointless for him, because his reason for inviting me in was so he could pitch me his autobiography. (“But it’ll be a really interesting story!” “Okay. Where’s your nonfiction book proposal?” “I don’t have one, but it’ll be a really interesting story!” “When you come up with one, let me know.” “Yeah, but it’ll be a really interesting story!”) Of course, his vision was that I should ghost it for a share of royalties. He saw absolutely nothing strange about what he’d done, nothing impositional. He heard the word ‘writer’ and his brain cramped up.

There are, of course, fictional forms to which some of this guidance may not apply. That’s okay. You decide.

And if this blog entry makes me sound like Sauron, please consider that I devoted three hours of my life to writing and finishing a bit of pro bono work meant mostly to help people I’ll never meet.

On Stephen King

Reading on Salon today, I came across Stephen King: You can be popular and good. Author Erik Nelson is much perturbed by another article by a chap named Dwight Allen, which Nelson considers…well, let’s let him say it:

“Allen’s article isn’t just a bile-drenched, meandering hatchet job, it is a hatchet job with a rusty, dull blade, devoid of insight into anything other than the insecurities of its writer.”

Careful when you drop the gloves. The disagreeing side also has guys who don’t hesitate to do so. I had to learn that myself, writing reviews at Amazon. Nelson is good on his skates, has a good jersey grab and throws hard. Plenty of accepted adventure classics were not great successes in their time, and did not grab the literati of the day. It is later generations who start ‘rediscovering’ your literary merit after you are gone, in some cases. I like that Nelson got this hacked off; he writes like he means it. It’s a fun read if you like this sort of thing.

This voracious reader is not enamored of King’s books. We have a good percentage of the full set (all but one volume now for sale on Alibris) and I have only been able to finish one Stephen King book in my life. That does not make him a lousy writer, merely means his genre and style do not attract me. It’s possible to write bestsellers and truly suck as a storyteller (hello there, Dale Brown and Fatal Terrain). We can bring up all the old stuff about how you do not make money writing to please literati, but rather, by writing to please Visigoths who read trash. We can bring up the free-market paradigm, which says that financial success by virtue of crazy sales volume speaks for itself. We could argue about that all year, none of us walking away convinced and none of us changing our habits. We also won’t make one dent in King’s pocketbook. He could buy us and sell us into slavery if he were the type. If I were him, I doubt I’d care too much what the LA Review of Books thought. I might even send Allen a $500 check with the memo line “to help you make rent next month; thanks for the pub.”

While I may not fancy King’s fiction, he wrote what I consider the most worthwhile book on the craft of writing that I’ve had the good fortune to read. I would be many kinds of a dolt if I dared ignore whatever wisdom King had to offer about this pursuit. You may call the title On Writing frank and descriptive, or you can call it generic and uninspiring. Your judgment won’t change the value of the content, which is a Polar Bear Plunge into the way King creates a novel. Deb bought it for me one Christmas. I smiled politely, thanked her, pretended enthusiasm, groaned inwardly, then started reading. The enthusiasm ceased to be pretend. So many novice writers’ Frequent Mistake Points, all disposed of with such candor.

If you are trying to break into fiction writing, and you ask me for guidance, that book is my first recommendation. Most of the time, when people ask me about writing, they don’t really want advice. They want approval for their process. If they don’t get it, they get miffed: “Well, that’s my creative process.” Wonderful–best of luck and success! But please don’t get all chapped because I didn’t bless your creative process, or even told you I thought you were doing it wrong. Just disregard me and do it however you want to. I neither gain nor lose from what you do with the guidance you asked for, but you did ask for it. Remember?

When you no longer try to get everyone to read your stuff even if they show dubious interest, and you no longer argue with authors whom you ask for advice–in short, when you stop needing a steady flow of validation in order to continue–you level up as a writer.

Needy writer syndrome

This is not so much a condition as a phase most writers pass through.  It’s the phase where you are bugging anyone and everyone to read your sonnets, screenplay, novella, or whatever.  If you have matured somewhat in your writing, you may want honest critique.  If you have not matured in it at all, you just want them to tell you it’s great.  My own travels through this phase lasted longer than I am glad to report.

Unfortunately, most people don’t want to read it, and they really don’t want to give you honest feedback, in case it completely blows.  Take it from me:  if you give something to someone to read, and you don’t hear back, either they just kinda didn’t do it because they really just didn’t want to, or it was a terrible piece and they are afraid to tell you so.

If you were going to be really smart about it, you’d pick up a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing, digest and absorb its lessons, and then you wouldn’t benefit from this blog post.  However, you probably won’t buy and read that book.  In that case, what you need is a writers’ group–and I don’t say that very often, because I have had very little luck with those.

The benefit of the writers’ group is they are going to read your work and critique it.  Their critique may be fair or unfair, smart or dumb, but they will read it, and you will likely improve.  You’ll get past Needy Writer Syndrome faster because you won’t be after everyone to critique you, and that’s all to the good.